14 Legendary Lighthouses
Lighthouse lore is woven with common threads of maritime history. In the early to mid-1800s, where shipping routes proved to be hazardous, lighthouses were built to guide mariners through treacherous passages. Lighthouse keepers often worked in isolation and around the clock to keep the light shining throughout the night and then tend to cleaning and maintenance during the day. The Fresnel lens revolutionized lighthouses and provided a brighter beam with less care. By the early to mid-20th century, lighthouse keeping duties were phased out as automated technology emerged. Many of these towers still stand and continue to provide navigational aid to mariners today.
These stalwart beacons offer fascinating tales of shipping tragedies, architectural accomplishments and personal journeys. Below are 14 lighthouses managed and cared for by federal agencies on the West and East Coasts and also in Michigan. All of them offer tours to the public, as well as unique stories.
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Standing in the windiest place on the Pacific Coast, as well as the second foggiest in North America, the Point Reyes Lighthouse warned mariners of the rocky dangers of the Point Reyes Headlands for nearly 100 years. Built in 1870, and retired from service in 1975, this lighthouse, and those who served as its keeper, endured hurricane force winds, isolation and around-the-clock duties. The visitor center and lighthouse are open for visitors and tours year-round, with some exceptions for restoration and weather. Five reservable campgrounds are available within the National Seashore; four are hike-in/bike-in sites and one is a boat-in option.
The Piedras Blancas Light Station was first illuminated in 1875 and continues to cast its light to aid navigation along the rocky California coast. An earthquake in 1948 caused damage to the upper part of the lighthouse reducing its height from 100 to 70 feet. Two-hour guided tours are offered year-round on select days and times. The light station is located six miles (9.6 km) north of Hearst Castle near San Simeon.
The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, built in 1860, is part of a designated Outstanding Natural Area within Florida’s urbanized Treasure Coast in northern Palm Beach County. Through the years the site has served as one of the first U.S. Weather Bureau and Signal Stations, a U.S. Navy Wireless Station, Radio Compass Station and a successful German U-boat tracking station during WWII. The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation. Access to the lighthouse is by guided tour operated by the Loxahatchee River Historical Society in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management.
Beginning in 1829, the St. Marks Lighthouse was built and then rebuilt two more times until 1842. The lighthouse survived devastating hurricanes in the 1840s and 1850s, but succumbed to damage by Union troops during the Civil War in 1865. The tower was repaired and extended an additional 10 feet after the war and is still used as a navigational aid today. The public is welcome to visit the grounds of the lighthouse and enjoy viewing wildlife throughout the refuge, but the tower is closed to the public.
Lighthouse (Matt Poole
Cape Ann Light Station—also known as Thacher Island Twin Lights—were the first to be built to warn mariners of a hazardous location rather than a harbor entrance. They were also the last to be built under British rule in the colonies. The rocky, 50-acre Thacher Island earned its name after a particularly tragic shipwreck during the Great Storm of 1635 when Anthony Thacher and his wife were the sole survivors among 21 passengers and crew members, including Thacher’s children and friends. Both towers continue to serve as navigational aids and are not open to the public, however, Thacher Island is open and accessible by boat or kayak.
The South Manitou Island Lighthouse was built in 1871 and served mariners along the Manitou Passage, the most important route for schooners and steamers traveling the 300-mile length of Lake Michigan. The lighthouse is open for tours where visitors can climb 117 steps on a circular staircase 104 feet above the ground. Visit the lighthouse and then stay awhile in the South Manitou Group Campground, a tent-only backcountry experience accessed only by ferry or boat.
There are six lighthouses located within or near the sanctuary, five of which still serve as navigational aids to commercial and recreational vessels. The Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, built in 1840, is no longer in operation and is open to the public where visitors can climb a hand-chiseled stone staircase to the top of the 40-foot tower.
The Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest working lighthouse in the U.S. It was built in 1764 and occupied by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964, its 200th anniversary. Visitors can tour the lighthouse and visit the lighthouse keepers’ quarters and visitor center year-round. Sandy Cams allow visitors to virtually enjoy the views from the lighthouse without climbing the stairs. You can also reserve a campsite at all three of Gateway's units.
The Fire Island Lighthouse was completed in 1858, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and reinstated as an official navigational aid in 1986. Enjoy a 20-mile view from this 168-foot tower and imagine this first sight for many European immigrants as they arrived in America. The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society provides public tours and offers special events throughout the year. For another unique experience on Fire Island, try wilderness camping within the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, the only designated wilderness area in New York.
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The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America and sheds light on an area deemed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The current lighthouse tower was built in 1868, which replaced the old tower built in 1803 and then modified in 1853. From the ground to the balcony level there are 257 steps, the equivalent of a 12-story building. This is a self-guided tour and is a strenuous, yet rewarding climb for those who venture to the top.
The Bodie Island Light Station, completed in 1872, is the third lighthouse built on—or near—this location. It is also located within Cape Hatteras National Seashore and offers guided tours up 250 steps. The most recent restoration of the lighthouse was completed in 2013 and it continues to serve as a navigational aid today.
If your visit to Cape Hatteras National Seashore includes an overnight stay, consider camping on Ocracoke Island.
The Cape Blanco Lighthouse holds at least four Oregon records; it is the oldest continuously operating light, the most westerly, the highest above the sea and Oregon's first woman keeper. There is also an earthquake monitoring station on the cape, which holds the record for the most tectonically active place along the West Coast. Tours are available to the public Tuesday through Sunday from April through October.
The Yaquina Head Lighthouse is an active lighthouse that has been lit continuously since 1873. At 93 feet, it is the tallest lighthouse in Oregon and is a feature of the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area where wildlife is abundant. The offshore islands are a year-round refuge for harbor seals and a spring-summer home for thousands of nesting seabirds. Gray whales can be spotted during their annual migrations to Mexico (late fall-early winter) and Alaska (late winter-early spring). Tours are available by the Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses.
Built in 1867, the Assateague Lighthouse continues to flash its beacon for maritime traffic between Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay. Located within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, this historical structure is just one attraction among the abundant wildlife of the area. More than 320 species of birds have been recorded on this barrier reef island, which has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Audubon Society Top Ten birding hotspot. The refuge is also home to the famous wild Chincoteague ponies, descended from horses presumed to have swum ashore from Spanish galleons that foundered off the coast in the 15th and 16th centuries. Lighthouse and wildlife tours are conducted by the Chincoteague Natural History Association.